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Scandi-Trip Part V

September 3, 2011 Leave a comment

The last part of our trip is basically getting home from Lofoten islands in Norway through Baltic countries. It includes visiting interesting places, mainly capitals of countries which we cross. But the plan is tight and we have only limited time for them.

Quick crossing of Sweden is followed by entering Finland (which is different time zone). Driving southwards through Finland is long and boring. Monotonous neverending lowlands with forests is what we see from the car. In Rovaniemi (on Arctic circle) we are visiting Santa Claus Village. It is pure fail. For some unclear reason this village claims it is home of Santa. Everything what it offers to tourists is maybe 10 giftshops plus one gift shopping center with another 10 giftshops. Atmosphere wants to be christmas-like (unsuccessfully) to persuade tourists to buy various useless Santa Claus themed things. Working here in gift shop I must consider the saddest and most depressing job at all.

Second and last stop in Finland is its capital, Helsinki. We spent just couple of hours here, so it is hard to judge it. But generally, city is not very interesting. People (compared to Norway) don’t speak English and Finnish reminds us Hungarian language. Our attempt to board first ferry to Tallinn is not successful. Failure in their reservation system causes us to wait several hours for the next one. Our ferry – Baltic Princess is huge, with 10 floors, equipped with various facilities (shops, pubs, restaurants, live music…). Cruise takes 3.5 hours.

Next three countries are Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in this order. We know almost nothing about these Baltic countries, by visiting their capitals (Tallinn, Riga, Vilnius) we are at least trying to learn differences between them. Threatened by statistics of high numbers of homicides (found by friend), overnights we are staying in city campings (for the first time). What these countries have in common is that almost nobody understands English. We can also feel that we are in former eastern block influenced by period of communism (for example architecture, statues in socialistic realism style…). Generally, cities are similar to Bratislava, it is apparent that our histories have something in common. Also the same horrible roads, the same trams, trolleybuses… But they are also very nice, it is not only about communism. Culturally, cities are full of history (old towns are bigger than in Bratislava) and everything is blended with modern style developed after 90s in a positive way. Girls are beautiful here (Estonian blondes probably win). We stayed only 2-3 hours in each capital, it would be definitely worth to explore more (also nightlife). Maybe sometimes in future. Old town of Tallinn is cozy and full of nice historical buildings, though it left a little bit sleepy impression on us (but that is maybe because we were there at 9 in the morning). Riga was bigger and very lively. Students celebrating beginning of the school year (with help of alcohol) were guarded by many policemen (BTW, density of police in the streets is much higher in post-communist countries than elsewhere). We enjoyed great views of the city from church tower. Vilnius old town (part of UNESCO heritage) we enjoyed from sightseeing bus. Very nice, lot of churches, visible influences of various cultures (russians, jews).

Last country before coming back to Slovakia was Poland, the country with probably worst roads in EU. We found time to visit Warsaw for 4 hours. We took sightseeing bus again to briefly explore main highlights (old town is UNESCO listed again). But the most impressive thing in Warsaw for me was monumental Palace of Culture and Science, 231 m high building built by Soviet Union as a gift to Polish people in 1955. It is controversial building which reminds communism for some people, but according to me it is aesthetically very nice. We enjoyed panoramic view of the city from its 33th floor.

Our return to Bratislava follows and after nearly 9000 km traveled, our trip comes to an end. In three weeks we explored mainly Norway and briefly also capitals of Denmark, Finland, Baltic countries and Poland. Our coverage of interesting places was not complete and we identified places we want to visit again and dedicate more time to them.

So what’s next? Flying back to London, processing hundreds of taken pictures… and planning next travels (New Zealand? New York? Stockholm?). Because as someone said: “The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.”

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Scandi-Trip Part IV

August 30, 2011 Leave a comment

Following 4 days of our Scandinavian travels are dedicated to northern Norway, mainly Lofoten islands. Long, boring journey towards north is interrupted by crossing the arctic circle, the only place worth mentioning. Arctic circle is border of area where polar day / night occurs at least once a year. We could not witness it, but still, even at midnight, sunlight was visible on the horizon (in case it was not cloudy). But it was nothing special, I would really like to experience polar day and also northern lights which we could not see this time of year as well. Back to crossing the arctic circle: plain empty country on the plateau, clouds maybe ten metres above us, cold, wind, herds of reindeers and tourist centre without tourists. At least gift shop (with all kinds of arctic circle themed clothing) was there so we spent most of the time shopping – because main tourist season is over there were lot of discounts.

Near Bodø, we looked at the worlds strongest maelstrom (tidal current) from the bridge but it was around 11 pm, so it was not very visible. I have also seen living elk for the first time. It was standing by the road and it was huge. Since that moment we started to take elk warning signs more seriously. In Bodø we boarded almost empty ferry to Moskenes on Lofoten islands. It was 3 hours long sail at night. Me and friend were sleeping on chairs on board, rest of the crew remained sleeping in the car despite the fact it was prohibited (resulting they were locked in the car deck). On Lofoten we slept more to gain strength to tomorrows hike.

Lofoten is an archipelago of which islands are interconnected with road bridges and tunnels. Area of all islands is covered with mountains which are tall, sharp and dramatic – different to mountains we have seen so far in Norway. From what we have heard, Lofoten were supposed to be uniquely beautiful but there is a risk in visiting them. And that is weather – if it is sunny it looks like from a fairytale, if not (which is quite often), it just does not pay off to spend so much time traveling to get there. Unfortunately we were not lucky and weather was bad. First day it was raining and mountains were being alternately covered and uncovered with mist and clouds. So for moments we were able to see the beauty partially (and yes, it was very nice) but we wanted to climb up some peak to see more. So we waited in caravan playing games and when it stopped raining we departed. But after ten minutes it started to rain again and we had to return back. We ended up completely wet. So with sadness on our faces we drove further through the islands hoping for better weather the next day. On the way weather was better and we discovered beautiful sandy beaches, the only problem of whose is that water is cold all year round here (but that did not stop some old grandma to swim in there). Our first night here (again some lonely place by the sea) was quite scary, because strong wind was rocking with the car and we were not sure whether we will not wake up turned on the side. But it was fine.

Next day it was still cloudy, but not raining. Great, let’s have some hike. Because of the absence of marked hiking paths here, we more or less randomly picked place to stop, looked up to the mountains and pointed at valley between two mountains – our destination. It looked quite innocently, but it ended up as 5 hours outing with quite high technical difficultly (only three of us went there, we told remaining friend (girl) that we are back in maybe 2 hours). Elevation was around 650 m, and it was very steep (up to 60 degrees). Pathless climbing complicated the hike a lot, at first we had to cross electric fence for sheep (it hit friend – they have to hear his scream on the other side of the island), then we have to walk through dense bushes followed by dominant part of loose rocks. Bonus: sheep shit everywhere, sometimes sheep as well (god, how they could climb up here?). Before reaching the top I went alone to rocky ridge, but it was too much adrenaline to me (such a height on both sides, loose rocks, no path) – so when I frightened started to shake I went back and caught up the rest. When we reached our highest point, we enjoyed the view and went back (different way). Steep descending was dangerous and friend who was constantly scared of falling into the moss-covered hidden gap between loose rocks, falled into the moss-covered hidden gap between loose rocks. Literally seconds after talking about it. The fall looked scary, he was really shocked and we thought that maybe we will have to call a helicopter. But it was ok at the end, little bit of blood, no broken arm or leg. So we did it. Very nice hike.

The northernmost place of our trip (and of my life so far) was Ardenes on island Andøya. Long driving without meeting any car and finally arriving into this sleepy coastal town had just one reason – whale watching. And it was great. It was 3 hours long wet and windy cruise on small (30 m) former fishing boat with guides and other tourists. Hydrophones were used to track the whales. We were lucky, we saw 6 huge (16 m) sperm whales – each one for maybe 5 minutes. Talk of the guides was informative and I know now much more about this nice animals (in addition I still have a piece in the fridge).

And that was our last stop in Norway. What follows now is long long drive through Sweden, Finland and Baltic countries back home. We still have interesting cities to see but all of us feel that the core of our journey is over. Excitement decreased, living together in caravan non-stop is becoming more and more annoying and we are starting to think about our normal lifes. But there is 6 days more. Let’s see…

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Scandi-Trip Part III

August 25, 2011 Leave a comment

Next part of our journey covers traveling from southern Norway up to Lofoten islands. It is a long way, so most of the time we spent driving, often only 300 km per day (narrow roads, construction limitations, ferries). But we had some interesting stops, obviously. We are still driving in the land of fjords – so we are making lot of “photo breaks” where we observe and document the country. There is lot of waterfalls, we drove to one intentionally (Voringfoss) but soon we realized it is not required – there is one in every ten minutes on the way. They are tall, falling from steep hills often straight to the fjord. Frequency of ferry transfers increases to up to 3 a day, tunnels are maybe 20 in one day. Weather is not good, often rainy but that is Norwegian climate, what to do… We sleep on various places by the road, interesting one was on some plateau in mountains where we parked at night and the next day saw the nice view around. That morning we also found out that we are surrounded by sheep which were brave not reacting to our attempts to scare them…it seems that they learned that they can get some food from people from caravans (to be specific they smelled our bacon for breakfast) to complement their boring grass diet. Not from us though.

Bergen, the second largest Norwegian city, was the place where we spent one afternoon. Nice city by the sea with small centre. Interesting were old crooked wooden houses – part of UNESCO heritage. We enjoyed nice view of the city, sea and islands nearby from hill above Bergen where we got by funicular, the only one in Scandinavia (as train lover I wanted to buy souvenir – piece of rail they were selling, but it would be too heavy). Interesting part was fish market where locals were selling all kinds of seafood. Some of the seafood we were given to taste, afterwards we bought some caviar, salmon and whale. Especially whale was new to us. We named him Willy. Next evening we had luxury dinner in caravan – whale with bread and wine. It was a strange feeling, we felt a bit guilty. I like intelligent animals and I usually do not eat them but I must say they also taste good. Willy was simply delicious.

Planned part of our schedule was hiking on Jostadelsbreen, the largest glacier in Europe. We came there quite late but we were lucky to catch last guided walk on the glacier that day. It was the shortest and easiest variant of the walk called “Family blue ice walk” (we would have to wait till next day to something more difficult and longer). It was very interesting and informative one hour walk on the bottom part of the glacier. We were equipped with climbing irons on our shoes to avoid sliding and all in our group of eight persons plus guide were connected with rope together. So if those four Israeli seniors fall down into some hole in glacier, we are going with them. At the end we survived and enjoyed it.

The next day we took a guided tourist (equals more expensive) ferry on UNESCO listed Geiranger fjord. Nice, nice, very nice but… we are starting to be little tired of fjords. Give me something else! Exciting attraction that day was Path of the Trolls, road going from 800 m high mountain pass downwards. Narrow road, 180 degrees hairpin turns – quite impressive but we think that less know roads we drove on a week ago were more dangerous than this.

That day my camera died. It came suddenly without any apparent reason to die (unlike my previous camera which ended its life by 20 m fall from the rock). But I am not worrying a lot, we have three more cameras here.

Next day greeted us with very nice sunny weather. I am wearing shorts for the first time, sunglasses as well. It is a shame we spend most of the day in car. Next highlight – atlantic road. It is 8 km long road with bridges through small islands near the the coast. Descriptions like the worlds best road trip set our expectations probably too high because it was not anything special and we were disappointed.

On the way up north we stopped in Trondheim, third largest city in Norway, again situated by the sea. It is university town literally full of students. Caravan crew splitted into two groups. Couple went for romantic sightseeing and me with friend parked in big wooden pub with one part floating on the river. We missed beer a lot (we drink radler every day but beer is beer). Although the beer was for around 10€, we both agreed that this is the pub of dreams. It was crowded of young students, 90% of them female, 90% of them blond. There has not been so many girls (without males) in my viewing angle until this evening (sorry, taking a picture would look creepy). Leaving the pub was hard mainly for my friend who falled in love with one black haired angel, codename “Snow White”. But it was one-directional love (as usually 😦 ) and surely there are seven dwarfs waiting for Snow White in her college room.

Anyway, we have to continue towards arctic circle. We are spending more and more time driving and this part is becoming tiring and boring (hopefully some hike on Lofoten will fix this feeling). Lesson learned for future trips: travel less, experience more.

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Scandi-Trip Part II

August 21, 2011 Leave a comment

We are spending one week and half in Norway and starting point for us was Oslo. First impression: wow. Word “city” redefined. One of the best places for living I have seen so far. Ok, city centre looks quite normal, but the city area as a whole…. it is more like mountain tourist resort (a la Tatranska Lomnica). Houses spread across hills separated by lot of trees. Most of the inhabited area is basically forest with “cottage style” houses. Public transport solved by metro system called T-Bane goes under ground in the centre, but outside it looks more like mountain tram in High Tatras. And on top of that, everything is by the sea, with nice views to surrounding islands. What I did not expect is diversity of nationalities / cultures living here – similar to London (what was the major sort-of drawback I have seen). But I could imagine to live here, everyone understands English (even seniors).

We spent one day and night there parking and sleeping close to church near last T-Bane stop. Interesting parts of Oslo sightseeing were: Vigeland park with many full sized sculptures of variously interacting men, women and children; modern opera house by the sea, roof of which was fully accessible to visitors (and I must not forget luxury toilet experience in the opera); then visit of Ski Jump (plus skiing museum) with nice view of Oslo; museum with three preserved Viking ships; public transport boat cruise; royal palace and cathedral in front of which there is still lot flowers dedicated to victims of recent Oslo killing. It was sunny and warm, both locals and tourists were enjoying the weather and streets were full.

Oslo was the last city for a long time going forward. Nature follows. Next three days we spent in southern part of Norway (to the west from Oslo). No big towns any more, just mountains, forests, lakes, fjords and villages. Driving here was an exciting experience – Norwegians do not have highways and they are completely ok with it. Most of the roads are very narrow, so often it is impossible to pass another vehicle with similar size going opposite direction without waiting on place where road is little bit wider. We had some “almost-collisions” when it took us couple of minutes to pass by another car without damage (so far only one mirror contact occurred which is great). And while doing this, we had to get rid of sheep which were attempting to eat our caravan when we slowed down (really) without harming them. Traffic is not very dense, max. speed is 80 km/h often reduced to 50. Roads go through big height differences, sometimes from 0 to 1000m (fjord-mountain), they are steep and turns are often 180 degrees (usually several of them in a row). There is plenty of tunnels which sometimes form spiral to achieve big climbing on small space.

Driving itself and observing the country is wonderful. At first nature was similar to slovakian (mountains, forests), on higher places it was more raw, rocky and empty like Scotland. But it was also unique too – for example such a big number of lakes I did not see anywhere else. And that was before fjords. Fjords are the best of all natural wonders here, so driving by them, crossing them by bridges and ferries (later more common than former) is very eye-appealing.

We have two navigation devices competing in offering us the best service. Sometimes we pick decision of the device which finds the worse alternative and we end up in woods on some gravel rally-style road (at night it is quite scary and we were
expecting some Breivik’s training centre in every lonely cottage). BTW, for the first time in my life I have seen road crossing the airport runway (in the middle of it) – it was like rail crossing but with runway instead of rails.

While driving, weather was sometimes sunny, sometimes cloudy and rainy. Nights we are staying (with other caravans) on various parking places for free (usually nice ones with toilets, place to sit outside and fjord or waterfall next to it).

Among man-created wonders what we have seen, I must mention system of wooden locks on connected water channels in Telemark area (sometimes multiple locks forming unique water staircase for boats).

And what was the best and most exciting? Definitely two hiking trips what we have done. It is hard to describe them in words – we are making lot of pictures and surely I will publish them later. First hike was to Kjeragbolten (5 hours roundtrip, 700
m elevation) which we initially started at 6pm. But all hikers returning back we met, were knocking on their heads and asking whether we have torch with us… after this we rather returned and postponed the hike to next early morning. Although it was cloudy, it was great – steep walking and often rather climbing (supported by chains) in raw rocky country without trees, occasionally meeting sheep begging for food. The whole hike was basically on the edge of Lysenfjorden 1 km above fjord. Stunning height, hard to describe. The actual Kjeragbolten is rock stuck between two cliffs with 1000 m long potential drop to fjord underneath (very popular place for base jumpers). All of us were brave enough to stand on it (one by one – it is small), but it really required steady feet, mental focus and strength to cope with possible death (of my friends obviously, I would not fall :-D).

My knee was surprisingly better (thanks to hiking sticks and knee compression wrap) and after mix of endorphins and adrenaline I got, I did not care much to be honest.

Second hike was to Preikestolen (4 hours roundtrip, 330 m elevation), forest, rocks, worse weather (but good is that heavy rain started after we returned) and annoying crowd of people (reminded me Oxford Street on Sunday). Again it was on the (other) edge of Lysenfjorden and the point of the hike was possible casualty again – this time 25 x 25 m flat square rock hundreds metres directly above fjord. Not every tourist could handle sitting on the edge with feet hanging from the cliff, but I think it’s not required to explicitly say whether I did it or not 🙂 This adrenaline dose was pure pleasure and I am becoming addicted (base jumping next time? :-).

Ok, let’s continue towards north… still a long long way to arctic circle…

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Scandi-Trip Part I

August 17, 2011 2 comments

This year I decided to spend my main holiday in Scandinavia. Three weeks out of problems I live with without people I spend time with and avoiding all usual thoughts I have (both positive and negative). Ok, it is not easy to completely switch myself to holiday mode and forget everything / everyone… but whatever, I am trying…

First issue what came before the trip was my knee. Something happened and suddenly I started to feel pain in it. I was limping before departure. I considered visiting doctor but I discarded the idea, because: 80% of them are useless (80:20 rule) and anyway… either it is not serious and I don’t need doctor or it is serious and there is not enough time to help me. Maybe just my body wants to tell me I am getting old… but I decided to fight. I will not return on wheelchair. Glacier hiking will cure me!

Flight to Vienna, meeting with three friends I travel with in Bratislava (I will respect their privacy and I won’t mention their names but they are 2 boys and 1 girl). Journey starts with boarding the caravan. Yes, we will drag our bedroom, kitchen, even shower and loo with us. Friends bought almost almost everything from grocery shop, it looked like for whole school canteen.

After loading, we departed. Direction Prague, Berlin, Puttgarden. In Prague I experienced my first drive with the huge beast (caravan) – thanks to our GPS it was through city centre – so with sightseeing included. I discovered that my style of driving which consists of accelerating, braking and quick steering is not just inefficient but dangerous too. Dynamic of the vehicle and its content was completely different, and I was occasionaly reminded to it when everything was moving and falling down with noise.

First day was about getting to ferry in Puttgarden which we boarded next day. First night was new experience for us. Everything is small and comfort is far from sleeping in real bed. Size of bed in the back is something like my bed, but I have to share it with friend. And friend does not mean nice girl unfortunately, actually it does not mean girl at all. Second “bed” which I have the pleasure to use every second night we have to assemble from back chairs and it is clear that sleeping is not main purpose of that thing.

Next day, we boarded ferry to Denmark. I have seen for the first time in my life whole train boarding the ferry – I did not even know that is possible. Our only stop in Denmark was Copenhagen. It is nice city full of channels and islands. We spent half day sightseeing, including boat tour. But the most interesting thing was part of town called Christiania. At first sight it looked like Camden – lot of strange people selling strange things. But those strange things were mainly THC based drugs – and selection was very rich. Labels “no photo”, “don’t run” and “selling drugs is still illegal” were everywhere. When I wanted to put my camera in the bag, I was almost attacked by some “rules enforcer” and I was forced to show him the camera to check I did not take any picture. But otherwise it was very friendly place full of relaxed people. We bought one unspecified consumable souvenir which we consumed with pleasure right there. Then we left this place where law is different than in EU.

Second night we spent in Sweden, on some empty space by the sea. No one was there but pirate flag and toilets. Actually, we found out there are lot of places where caravans can stay overnight for free and they are always equipped by luxury toilets. We took advantage of them also following night when we slept on the best place so far – on beautiful island surrounded by other islands, right next to impressive bridge.

Because the core of our trip is Norway, we spent only one day in Sweden. To be more specific it was in Götteborg. Firstly, it is completely true that young swedish blond girls are amazing. All of them wear short jeans and they are nicely tanned (what I did not expect for such a northern country). And the city itself? I liked it, at least some hills compared to Copenhagen. We walked the centre where we took a ride on smaller version of London Eye, then visited Scandinavium – ice hockey stadium where Slovaks won gold in 2002. The last and best of Götteborg was visit of AtmosFear attraction in local amusement park which was basically 85 m high tower where we experienced several seconds long unforgettable free fall.

My knee is still not ok, sometimes I am nervous about it but I am trying not to care too much.

I already mentioned that sleeping is different that I am used to. I am actually looking forward my bed right now. But although it is not comfortable compared to staying in hotels / motels, this has very unique advandage to sleep almost anywhere we want. And we are more and more picky… if there is no lake, fjord or nice view, we are not staying.

Also eating is different, we are not visiting restaurants, because we have everything. But we have to eat some type of food quickly while it is ok… for example we have so many bananas which we have to eat quickly that we use them as threats and punishments (“wash dishes or you’ll have to eat a banana!” etc.).

The Scandi-trip continues in Norway (starts with Oslo) which I will cover later…

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